Tobacco industry in the United States is notorious for using money to buy political influence and favorable media coverage so as to circumvent and scuttle laws detrimental to the industry. It now appears that the tobacco industry is not alone in such insidious behavior. A new study into the funding of health organizations in the US found that the two biggest soft drink manufacturers, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, sponsored at least 96 national health organizations between 2011 and 2015. Moreover, the study showed that during the same period, the soda giants campaigned against at least 28 public health bills that were aimed at lowering soda intake and improving general diet.
This lobbying by the beverage giants against public health is particularly deplorable as it comes at a time when sugary drink consumption has become a major public health concern, and has been closely associated with number of non-communicable diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The revealing new study, conducted by Daniel Aaron and Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University, provides insight into the funding that national health organizations received from soda giants over the past 5 years. The study shows that between 2011 and 2015 a total of 96 national health organizations in the United States accepted money from the two companies. wThe fund recipients included 63 public health groups, 19 medical organizations, seven health foundations, five government groups and two food supply groups. Of these, 83 accepted money from Coca-Cola, one accepted money from PepsiCo, and 12 accepted money from both companies. It is worth noting that unlike Coca-Cola, PepsiCo does not publish a list of organizations it provides finance to, so the researchers say it is likely that even more health organizations received funding.
Researchers are now certain that there is a well-established link between sugary drinks and obesity. The average American consumes around 175 liters of soda a year, one of the highest in the world; the country also has an adult obesity rate of nearly 38 percent, which is among the highest in the world. Given the well-established link between sugary drink intake and diabetes, it is surprising to find that both the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation were among the health organizations that accepted funding from the soda giants.
The American Diabetes Association accepted $140,000 from the Coke between 2012 and 2014, while the American Heart Association received more than $400,000 from the company between 2010 and 2015. And the National Institutes of Health received nearly $2 million from Coke between 2010 and 2014.
The research suggests that big soda companies are not only hampering efforts to improve public health and nutrition, but that some health organizations were in effect colluding with the soda giants to subvert and dampen reports of the health risks of these beverages. Supporting this view is a report that appeared in the New York Times last year, which revealed that Coca-Cola funded a ‘neutral organization’ which called itself the Global Energy Balance Network.
The network was engaged in shifting public health messaging away from fat and sugar rich foods and beverages, and instead emphasizing that exercising was more important to overall health. Despite there being a clear-cut case of ‘conflict of interest’ many health organizations had no qualms in accepting funding from the beverage giants. Some of the health organizations that were implicated in taking money from Coke and Pepsi claim that they remain biased in their assessment of industries coverage. They maintain that they can continue to remain objective and serve public health goals while also accepting money from soda companies.
This is not always true. In 2010, Save the Children, a group that advocated for soda taxes, dropped the cause after they received more than $5 million from Coco-Cola and Pepsi. Similarly, in 2012, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which received $875,000 in funding from Coca-Cola, issued a statement declining support for proposed limit on soda portions in New York, arguing instead that nutrition education should be emphasized.
In the same vein, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Hispanic Federation have both publicly opposed anti-soda initiatives despite disproportionately high rates of obesity in black and Hispanic communities. This is not surprising, given that between 2010 and 2015, the NAACP received more than $1 million in donations from Coke and that between 2012 and 2015 the Hispanic Federation accepted $600,000 from the beverage giant.
Since research in the early 2000s first linked excessive consumption of sugar with obesity, weight gain, and other health problems — especially in children — the US food industry has been bankrolling media campaigns, health organizations and myriad other ‘public-health’ initiatives that try to make their products less harmful than they actually are.
Corporate sponsorship from food industry to subvert health campaigns is not something new. As far back as 1965, the sugar industry was reported to have funded Harvard researchers an American sugar trade group paid Harvard scientists to publish health research that turned attention away from sugar towards fat as the major culprit behind heart diseases.
Coke says that since 2010 it has spent more than $120 million on academic research and partnerships with health organizations involved in curbing obesity, what it leaves unsaid is that between 2011 and 2014, the company also spent more than $6 million a year campaigning against health bills and proposals. During the same period, PepsiCo spent more than $3 million annually and the American Beverage Association — the trade association that represents America's non-alcoholic beverage industry — spent $1 million a year lobbying to defeat laws to tax and label sugary beverages.
In 2009 alone, when the US government proposed a federal soda tax to curb obesity that would help finance health care reform, Coke, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association together spent a combined $38 million in lobbying against the measure, which ultimately failed to become law.
The researchers say, much like previous investigations into the tobacco and alcohol industries showed, their results suggest that the soda industry is using ‘corporate philanthropy’ as a marketing tool to "silence health organizations that might otherwise lobby and support public health measures against these industries." Now, most organizations refuse tobacco money. Perhaps soda companies should be treated similarly. The researchers recommend that health organizations refuse sponsorship from the soda industry and seek out alternative funding in order to avoid becoming embroiled in devious corporate marketing strategies.